Restorying Dogs: Rewriting a Myth of Origins

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It’s been an emotional rollercoaster of a year dog-wise.  After months of failing health, we lost our beloved 13-year old standard poodle, Japhur, to bone cancer in the spring.  Even though he lived to a ripe old age for his breed, it was heartbreaking.  We planned on waiting before getting another dog, but a month ago as we were walking up Corstorphine Hill we met a beautiful, happy-go-lucky puppy named Poppy.  One thing led to another at extremely high speeds and just over two weeks later, we drove down to Preston to pick up Poppy’s younger cousin Piper and found ourselves in the midst of puppy chaos…Over the last 13 years I’d managed to forget just how much work a young puppy can be.  Of course, he’s worth every minute of it.

In his book, In Defense of Dogs, anthrozoologist John Bradshaw summarises recent research into dog biology and behaviour for the general audience.  His overall point: the stories we’ve been telling about our canine companions are not supported by the latest research and are damaging dogs through the training and breeding programmes they perpetuate.  His book sets out to get our stories about dogs back on track for the good of us all.

Genetically speaking, it has been confirmed that dogs are descended from the gray wolf (Canis lupus).  This part of the story is nothing new.  People have been treating dogs like domesticated wolves since well before DNA could be tested.  However, the lines and lives of wolves and dogs diverged tens of thousands of years ago.  Also, the stories that behaviourists tell about wolves and their social behaviour have changed a lot since the flawed studies of the 1950s.  Scientists used to be believed that wolf packs were rigidly hierarchical and that individual wolves were obsessed with social position.  These stories arose out of observations of wolves in captivity or under stress from human persecution.  More recent observations of wolves in more stable environments show that wolf packs tend to be organised around family groupings and are oriented much more towards cooperation than dominance.  Dogs see their adoptive human homes as family units, not military ones.

Origin stories are key ways in which people understand themselves and their place in the world.  That goes for society as much as for individuals.  The story of dogs as descended from wolves is, of course, part of an origin myth about dogs.  Things get even more mythical when researchers start postulating about the “domestication” of dogs.  Exactly how dogs and people came to cohabitate is lost in the murky realm of prehistory.  Did we domesticate them or did they domesticate us?  All we know is that they are the first species to become an integral part of human society.  However, an inability to find a certain truth has never stopped anyone from telling stories.  In the more recent narrative that Bradshaw presents, what makes dogs special isn’t their keen sense of smell or their ability to be trained up to do a range of things, but rather their affability.  Quite simply, he says that dogs have been successful because they are really good at getting along with people and with each other.

As Donna Haraway so convincingly demonstrates in her collected writings about studies of monkeys and apes, Primate Visions, the stories that science tells about other species actually reveal much more about how we humans see ourselves than they do about the animal others we dwell with on this planet.  That mainstream science now stories gray wolves (arguably a cross-cultural icon of wildness and danger) as loving collections of cooperating members has got to be a sign that our culture is beginning to value getting along over dominant hierarchies.  Bradshaw hopes that these alternative storylines will help improve the lives of the dogs we live with.  They certainly resonate with my experience of living with dogs.  As it became more difficult and painful for Japhur to walk and his world shrank to a couple of rooms and short outings to the garden, he could have become grumpy and vicious.  According to stories of dominance, he should have felt vulnerable and defensive.  However, as his illness progressed he actually became more and more affectionate, kind and loving.

As I go through the daily challenges of convincing 12-week old Piper to follow all the silly rules humans have around where to pee and poo what to eat and what not to chew, I like to imagine a distant ancestor inviting a puppy in from the cold for the very first time.  I imagine she coaxes him in with a piece of roast meat off the fire, not because she imagines he might help her to hunt, but because he is cute and cuddly and full of affection and she can’t say no to his hungry pleading.  Maybe he was orphaned and she had lost her children.  Perhaps it was an act of kindness that rescued both of them from the hardships of loneliness.  Who would we be as a human society if we could imagine that dogs were first domesticated not because they helped with killing and defence, as the old stories go, but because they helped us to feel love and companionship?

4 thoughts on “Restorying Dogs: Rewriting a Myth of Origins

  1. I got a puppy last year when my grandchildren moved out of town…and wow, she is such a lover–now just one year old. So, your blog entry was just right; really enjoyed it this morning!

  2. Hi Alette! Such a sweet photo of Japhur (great name!) – so hard to lose a loved one.

    Can’t wait to hear more about the puppy. : )

    The image of someone coaxing in a puppy some day oh so long ago… that clicks with me. I never had thought of that… yes – it must have started with a puppy. of course.

    1. Hi Kif. The photo is actually of Piper, the new puppy. Our Japhur was a black standard. Piper is sleeping now, after a morning romp in the park. 🙂

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